No Name Calling: The Harm in Innocent Teasing


What comes to mind for you?

Do you think of friendly banter, affectionate, maybe even flirty teasing?

Teasing to embarrass somewhat, but in a playful way?

Maybe in the form of a nickname, joke, or light-hearted insult?


Does teasing feel more like taunting, in which someone else is making fun of you in a mean way?

Does your identity feel threatened due to being targeted or bullied for being different? Does teasing take the form of jokes that are inappropriate or offensive [e.g., racist, sexist, homophobic]? How is your sense of self impacted?

Teasing may persist even after an individual has given cues that they do not like what is happening. This can be complicated when the other individual may not pick up on or misread cues. I have seen this all the time with kids on the playground who are “play-fighting” and end up angry and upset as things escalate.

While those who are “just teasing” may have the intent to joke in light-hearted fun, teasing can easily cross lines into harassment and bullying. I am saddened when individuals who think they are “just teasing” are calling names, causing emotional harm, and may also cross or violate physical boundaries. It is important to ask before touching someone. Touching someone without their consent is never a good idea. If someone has asked you to NOT say or do something, then please respect that.

Paying attention to your use of language, especially when it comes to labels that are often assigned to others is also important. For individuals struggling with their mental health or a substance disorder, educate yourself on terms-to-avoid to describe others [e.g., addict, alcoholic, schizophrenic]. Also, be aware of how you are responding to others who are experiencing emotional distress.

Instead of:

“You must be [crazy, etc.] to see a therapist.”

“What’s wrong with you?!”

“You are too [emotional, sensitive, fill in the blank]”

Try this instead:

  • Ask what the other person has been experiencing while using empathetic listening.
  • Inquire about what things are helpful/ unhelpful.
  • Validate their emotions.
  • Use curiosity to ask and learn about their choices.
  • Avoid judgment, harmful labeling, and jumping to conclusions.
  • Ask if there is anything you can do to help; perhaps a little humor or physical comfort may be what is needed.

Written By: Charlotte Johnson, MA, LPCC

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